Wednesday, December 1, 2021



The Double Translation


Poets from all over the world are contributing generously with their poetical creations to the OPA monthly issues as well as to the yearly anthology publications. We are extremely thankful to them as well as to our readers since the viewership of OPA is increasing constantly. Our endeavour is to form a platform of poetic excellence and exchange for people from various nations, cultures, ethnic groups, religions and, above all, from a multitude of language communities. This is only possible due to the consensus of using one language accessible to the broad readership, the 'good old' English. Whereas there are many international poets with a very good command of English, who either write poetry in this language or translate their own poems into it, others need a skilled translator for an ideally optimal transposition of their verse into English. But then, what makes a good translator? Thousands of poets, scholars, scientists and more have attempted to answer this question, yet there is no generally accepted definition of the ideal translator, their work being too many-faceted and complex for standard explanations. This notwithstanding, there are quite a few general agreements on the requirements a good translator must fulfil in order to be able to cope with all the difficulties inherent in the translation work.

In this respect, a main aspect and challenge is the incongruence of languages due to the so called 'linguistic relativity'. Supporters of linguistic relativity claim that each language community structures the flux of the surrounding reality into verbal patterns which are, to a greater or lesser degree, different from those of other languages. Concrete as well as abstract terms are affected by this sort of stronger or weaker incompatibilty. Wilhelm von Humboldt, as one of the first to theorise these aspects of language, maintained as early as 1816: “It has repeatedly been observed and verified by both experience and research that no word in one language is completely equivalent to a word in another /.../.” [i]

This idea has permeated scholars' reasoning irrespective of age, geographical provenance, or trend of thinking, and it is remarkable how very similar formulations have been in the course of history. More than 100 years later, the Spanish philosopher, essayist and critic José Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Therefore, it is utopian to believe that two words belonging to different languages, and which the dictionary gives us as translations of each other, refer to exactly the same objects.” [ii]

This being said, the question arises inevitably if translation is possible at all or rather a utopian act. Here, too, various degrees of optimism (or pessimism!) have been expressed by writers and scholars. Roman Jakobson, for instance, known for his often-cited distinction between three levels of translation of verbal signs: intralingual, interlingual and semiotic, chose to use the term 'interpretation',  and accounted for it by mentioning that translation can be nothing else than a recreation of the literary work– the more truly so when poetry is involved: “/…/ poetry by definition is untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible /.../”. [iii]

The particular position of poetry in the process of translation has been repeatedly emphasised by both practitioners and theoreticians of lyricism. A wide consensus seems to have been attained as to the fact that every poetry translation is a secondary type of transposition, or, in other words, the translation of a translation, since poems themselves are the result of processing or transmitting ordinary everyday language into sublimated poetic expression.

A further requirement on translators has always been to preserve the creative stylistic power of the original without trying to  to 'decipher' the poetic work, and to maintain its multiplicity of meanings in that they achieve effects analogous to those of the original.  A translated poem should have the quality of leaving the same impact on readers of the target language, as the original does on readers of the source language. The Mexican writer, poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Octavio Paz maintains that translation is: “/.../ less a copy than a transmutation. The ideal of poetic translation, as Valéry once superbly defined it, consists of producing analogous effects with different implements.” [iv]

Therefore, a major point of the translation assignment is the dynamic character of the transmission of a poetic message. My own confrontation with poetry, as a scholar, poet and translator, has continually confirmed that a poem is not a dead, rigid product, but a live entity, with a spirit of its own. It is, in my opinion, this feature that makes not only poetry, but all valuable works of art perennial and enjoyable for each new generation. And it is the translators' task to find their way to this inner life slumbering in complex literary structures.

No doubt, a main demand on a competent translator is to have very good command of both the target and the source language, i.e. the poet's language. This includes not only a full understanding of the author's native tongue, but also deep acquaintance with his or her peculiar way of handling words, that which distinguishes them from all the other speakers of the same language.

Opinions about the requirements on a good translator are, without doubt, diverse, but I believe that one of the main aspects of this debate refers to the translator being, like every reader, an individual receptor of the work of art. That means that, on the one hand, they themselves cannot claim ultimate comprehension of a literary work, and, on the other hand, neither readers nor critics can expect any final or universal translation from them. It is precisely the potential of every piece of literature to be interpreted and, accordingly, translated in more than one way, that makes this work vital and durable.

A frequent assertion is that poetry translators are not supposed to translate the words of the poem, but should attempt to transfer its content or, more specifically, the poet's intentions. Unfortunately, no devices have been invented so far that could provide readers or translators with such clairvoyant abilities, but what both readers and translators can experience is the effect, the impact that the poem or other literary works leave upon them. In my opinion, fidelity to the original ought to be understood as the translator's endeavour to endow the new text with the same pungency and operative potential that the original has. In this enterprise, the translator remains a subjective agent, however hard he or she may pursue objectivity. They are inevitably marked by their sensitivity, artistic formation, and own perception of the surrounding world.

The content of this editorial only touches upon a few basic facts about translation. A lot more needs to be taken into consideration when talking about this topic. But then, there are a lot more editorials to come, so just stay tuned and follow the amazing poetic endeavour of the OPA contributors in original and / or in translation.


i)                  Humboldt, Wilhelm von, 1992, “From the Introduction to His Translation of Agamemnon”, transl. by Sharon Sloan, in Biguenet, John and  Schulter, Rainer (Eds.) , Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, pp. 55-59.

ii)               Ortega y Gasset, José, 1992, “The Misery and the Splendor of Translation”, transl. by Elisabeth Gamble Miller, in Biguenet, John and  Schulter, Rainer (Eds.), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, pp. 93-112

iii)            Jakobson, Roman, 1992, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”, in Biguenet, John and Schulter, Rainer (Eds.), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden         to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, pp. 144-151.

iv)             Paz, Octavio, 1992, “Translation: Literature and Letters”, transl. by Irene del Corral, in Biguenet, John and  Schulter, Rainer (Eds.), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, pp. 152-162.


Dr. Aprilia Zank

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  2. I sincerely congratulate my dear friend Aprilia Zank for this research article, which expresses the concerns of poets who cannot translate their poems and need translators. I heartily congratulate our esteemed founder and editor-in-chief, Nilavro Nill Shoovro, and my editorial colleagues who contributed. OPA is proud to contribute to world literature.